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Modern Rock is on Life Support

Rock music has gone through many changes throughout the decades. In the 70’s rock songs were well-crafted, and the musicians who wrote and played the music were skilled. The songs had melody, solos, interesting riffs and chord changes, and the musicians experimented with key signatures and structures. The 80’s saw the emergence of highly technical players such as Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Yngwie Malmsteen, Randy Rhoads, and many more who gave new life to the music through their technical abilities. Mainstream rock music of the 90’s, however, is the worst of these three decades. Mainstream rock, which is rock that gets the most radio play, is generally bland, lacking the originality and musicianship that makes rock music interesting, and in effect is nothing more than watered-down sound.

Modern rock music is devoid of the guitar solo, which serves as the climax of a song. A guitar solo is much like the climax of a story, it is the point of highest tension in the musical piece, and without the solo the music is like a story without conflict; flat and uninteresting. When questioned about the state of rock guitar today, guitarist Richie Sambora had this to say: "Not a lot of people are playing solos, which is surprising to me… I think there are a lot of good players out there, but no one’s killing me. I’m not getting bowled over like when Jimmy Page or Eddie Van Halen or Steve Vai came along"(Gulla 70). Veteran musicians such as Sambora are noticing the effect that removing solos is having on rock music. The music is becoming less potent, less energetic, and less captivating. Guitar heroes are thrown by the wayside in modern rock in exchange for music that is uninspired and has little impact on the listener. Solos are not the sole criterion for good music, however, and good song writing skills are necessary to make good music.

Most modern rock fails in songwriting as well. The songs are basic and lack interesting chord progressions and melodies. The music mostly relies on the same tired chords being strummed in the same “been there, done that” fashion and rarely are melodies included in modern rock. If a melody is included, it is usually uninspired and dull. An example of this facet of playing is found in Weezer’s song, “Buddy Holly.” Weezer sticks to using the same chord strumming technique all through most of the song, which consists of approximately six chords. This strumming pattern is a simple constant eighth note strum, and it doesn’t even employ the use of full chords; instead Weezer sticks to plain, simple power chords. A full major or minor chord consists of three different notes, referred to as a triad. For an example of a triad, say that the chord being formed is a D minor chord. The first note would be D, the next F, and the last A. These three notes would be played together, sounding the D minor chord, and on a guitar, the chord is likely to be played on all six, or just five of the strings, but a power chord on the other hand eliminates one of the notes, thus relinquishing the quality of being either major or minor. So if you were to have a D power chord, the notes would be D and A, and usually power chords are only played over two or three strings, so they are the most basic of all chords. Weezer’s song relies heavily on these power chords, and is composed almost entirely of power chords. What is the result? Since the chords are reduced to power chords, and have no major or minor qualities a lot of the pull, or strength, is taken from the chord progression. And to what effect? The music is reduced to a watered-down basic state. Many of the modern rock bands such as Weezer do not experiment with the fundamentals of music and musical structure.

Instead they cling to the same keys of E minor, A minor, F major, and so on. A key change in the middle of a song has a powerful effect on a song, and if done well, it alters the mood of the piece, and can raise it out of the gutter. Many modern rock bands, however, don’t experiment with key changes or even unfamiliar keys as evidenced by the band Disturbed and their song “The Game”. Throughout almost the entire song the guitarist sits on a low E note, rarely playing anything else. He does employ two other very basic power chords, but sticks to nearly the exact same riffs and all the while staying trapped in the same key signature of E minor! For those that do not know what a riff is here is an explanation: A riff is to a song as a word is to a sentence. Riffs are not complete songs, just as words aren’t complete sentences, however, a riff is a part of a song, and the song would not be complete without riffs. So if a player uses the same riffs throughout an entire song, then it has the same effect as a sentence that is composed of the same words - it tends to be dull. So as can be easily seen with the example of Disturbed, modern rock doesn’t succeed even in songwriting. Instead, a lot of modern rock tends to focus on image and whatever the current trends are, thus diluting the potency of the music.

Too many bands follow the trends and in effect modern rock has become the epitome of the cookie cutter band. In an interview with Guitar One magazine an up and coming musician for a band called Injected had this to say about music: “With all this rap- metal and active rock, you get a billion cling-ons. Everybody’s got their buzz saw amps with the mids on ‘0’ and the engines cranked”(O’Byrne 74) In other words, all too many copycat bands have come about, and few have any substance. They don’t write good songs, they don’t play good solos or concern themselves with intensifying music by using simple techniques such as playing in a new key. Modern rock bands find out what the current trend is and they grab hold. Bands such as Disturbed, Puddle of Mudd, Nickleback, Limp Bizkit, and many more are these types of “cling-on” bands. They do not distinguish themselves from the norm by being musicians. These are bands that do not seem to know what originality means. If one band comes out with something new and it becomes popular many other bands have to try and be just like them and in their quest for money, they forsake the music and instead stand poised to jump on the trendy bandwagon and abandon music for a quick buck.

This leaves music in a state of critical condition. The music is unoriginal, players use the same basic strumming patterns, and they rarely experiment outside of basic chords. Jazz guitarist Pat Methany says about some 90’s rock bands, “To me, Nirvana marked the end of an era where the guitar as a solo instrument was a component in rock ‘n’ roll. The moment where Cobain sort of ridicules Eddie Van Halen’s style of playing in the video, that was an iconic moment. There has always been this suspicion in pop and rock music that knowing too much about music was somehow a pox on creativity. That’s a political thing more than a creative thing. In fact, Nirvana was a virtuoso band. Those guys played their asses off. The focus became much more about energy. With bands like Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails, the energy focused on a level you would call ‘aggression towards the groove,’ and it became a style that was very much imitated to the point where it has now become a cliché. As an older guy, I keep waiting for someone to come up with a fundamentally different way of doing it.” (Micallef 94) Pat Methany’s statement sums up what has been said. Modern rock has declined in terms of musicianship, and opted instead for a watered-down, clichéd approach as opposed to learning to play their instruments, and learning some theory to spice up the music. While the majority of Modern rock bands do not experiment outside of the realms of the basic, a few do not follow the trends, and make interesting, satisfying music.

While modern rock music is mostly unoriginal and stripped-down in terms of musicianship, some rock players in the 90’s have amazing musical skills and writing abilities. Some examples are the groups Dream Theater, Liquid Tension Experiment, and Primus. The musicians of Liquid Tension Experiment and Dream Theater are all highly technical players, but also inventive players. They manipulate chords so that they can gain new and interesting sounds out of these chords, and solos abound all through their songs. Only few surpass their technical ability as musicians, yet the songs aren’t bogged down with all of the technical playing. Each song retains an originality and feel all its own. Guitar magazine has this to say about Liquid Tension Experiment in its August 99’ issue: “Its convoluted jams are much more tightly structured and compositional. Petrucci’s a true perfectionist, and it’s no surprise that his playing is both aggressively exploratory and tightly controlled. The music is dramatic, complex, and ever-changing, particularly on the extended workouts ‘when the water breaks,’ ‘Chewbacca,’ and ‘Liquid Dreams.’ For fans of Dream Theater’s technical superiority, this album is bliss.” (94) Primus on the other hand isn’t anywhere as technical as the other two bands, but they experiment musically and draw a lot of influence from early groups such as Pink Floyd. While Primus does not have extremely technical passages, they are a truly interesting and unique band because they manipulate song structures. The songs sound as if they are spontaneous jam sessions, so they hold a lot of energy.

Sadly though, most of the "Modern rock" bands do not follow in the footsteps of the previously mentioned bands and restrict themselves to wallowing in a shear lack of originality and musical ability, instead opting to follow the current trends and norms of rock music. Solos are thrown out of songs that have little or no variation, or inspiration, and in effect the music is left uninspired and uninteresting musically.

Works Cited:

Gulla, Bob. “Keepin’ The Faith”, Guitar One, July 2000:64-70

“Liquid Tension Experiment 2”, Guitar, Aug. 1999:94

Micallef, Ken “Phase Dancing.” Interview with Pat Methany, Guitar One, May 2002: 89-98.

O’Byrne. Chris. “Breakthrough artist Injected”, Guitar One, May 2002: 74.

Perrin, Jeff. Transcriber of “Buddy Holly” by Weezer, Alternative Guitar issue 2, 1995:60-64.

“The Game” Tablature of Disturbed’s song, Guitar One, May 2002: 140-145.

May 17, 2002
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